2018 was without a doubt in my mind the best year of music I have experienced in my life thus far. Perhaps this was because of how many of the artists that I listen to came out with a new project or maybe because of my new-found open-mindedness, but it seemed like every month another great album was released. Fast forward to 2019 and I -along with the rest of the music world- was still waiting for a truly great album to be released. I would argue that James Blake’s Assume Form was a very solid project and Maggie Rodger’s Heard It In A Past Life was a fun listen but I believe that Grey Area by Little Simz is this year’s first outstanding album.
I found Simz in 2017 through her collaboration with Gorillaz on the song Garage Palace. Her extraordinary flow and lyrical talent blew me away when I first heard it and so I immediately began to listen to her past works. Her first effort A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons was a fairly decent album with some stand out tracks and some deeply personal tracks about Simz’ youth and her struggles with breaking into the music industry. Then on her second album – Stillness in Wonderland – took a more conceptual approach, embracing an Alice in Wonderland theme to good effect to construct another solid piece of work. However, on Grey Area, Simz reverts back to a more stripped back album structure, ditching symbolism for raw and deeply introspective lyrics and swapping polished production for live instrumentation. This change of sound only accentuates the rawness of Simz’ voice and lyrics which makes for a very personal album, more reminiscent of her first album, balancing on the line between unapologetic defiance and inward-looking intimacy.
In terms of the defiance, songs like Offence and Boss best display the unwavering power that Simz can embody by speaking out against the injustices she’s faced in her life and the doubters she’s met along the way to where she is now. The line “I said it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend” from Offense being a prime example of this. However, Venom is (in my opinion) not only the best song on the album but also one of the most combative and outspoken songs about the perceived biased against women in Hip Hop. The instrumentation is eerily haunting, with violins wavering behind Simz’ savage delivery, all adding up to a song that is nothing short of empowering. And yet on the same album, songs like Pressure, Therapy and especially Sherbet Sunset highlighting Simz in a completely different light, going from cocky and confident too, intimate and introspective whilst still retaining that sense of bite in her voice. Sherbet Sunset actually blew my mind when I first listened to it as I would have never had thought I would hear a song fro Little Simz that displayed her in such a vulnerable state. The exposure to the innermost thoughts of Simz is not something she often fully lets out in her music but in this song, she puts all her mistakes and feelings on display, making for one of the most sympathetic songs of her career.
Grey Area makes amends to one of my personal grievances with Simz’ last project. Whilst I did enjoy Stillness In Wonderland, one aspect of it that I enjoyed less was the number of features. Some of them did work in parts of the album but overall I felt like they distracted from Simz’ talent and made the project seem a bit crowded. This time around, it seems like those brought on to the album were handpicked for a specific reason, the best additions probably being Cleo Soul on the track Selfish (adding some appropriately soulful vocals to a very soothing song) and Little Dragon on Pressure (with lead singer Yukimi Nagano’s off-kilter vocals providing a nice change of tone for the song).
Overall, Grey Area was everything I wanted from the next album in Little Simz’ discography. It met the expectations set by her previous albums and the singles that were released in the months leading up to the release of the album. In fact, in some respects, the album far surpassed my expectations going into it. I was not expecting to have my heart-rate raised so high and then have my emotions brought down so low all within a meer 35 minutes. It was already apparent that Simz was an extremely talented MC, but Grey Area shows that she will only continue to grow and propel her into the mainstream.